A culture that celebrates cheating
Feb. 22, 2012 — Do all cultures celebrate cheating as much as we do? Has “getting away with it” always thrilled us to the extent it does now? I’ll concede in advance the danger of falling into the this-is-the-worst-it-has-ever-been trap, and even acknowledge, on a moment’s reflection, that our time and place has no patent on pretense, disingenuousness, and deceit. But we are still in staggeringly bad shape.
It doesn’t matter the direction in which you turn. In the world of sports — an area that seems a fruitful proxy for widely held societal values — cheating is endemic. What sport has not found that some of its champions had reached the pinnacle with banned substances? How ecstatic are fans when, at a crucial moment, their hero succeeds by falsely pretending to have remained in bounds or to have applied a tag?
Legal culture, of course, is extravagantly dishonest. It’s not just the relatively rare practice of stealing client funds outright, or even the much more common practice of inflating one’s billable hours. It’s the grinding, day-in, day-out intellectual dishonesty of subverting the administration of justice by interposing arguments the attorney knows are without merit but have the advantage, for example, of delaying or denying the production of relevant documents.
Long Island’s Scholastic Aptitude Test cheating scandal has been in the news, but what about all the schools — perhaps private schools, especially — that pretend that great test scores just naturally emerge from having fostered a “joyful learning environment,” all the while depending on each and every parent to supplement the schools’ above-board instruction with discrete but pervasive (and hugely expensive) private tutoring?
Many tend to get exercised about welfare fraud (which is, in fact, wrongful), but yawn at tax evasion —both individual and corporate — that costs ever so much more. The rationale generally employed is something like, “We’re just doing our best to take advantage of the system as it exists”; the more accurate line that comes to mind is from a Bob Dylan song: “Steal a little and they throw you in jail; steal a lot and they make you King.”
A small but continuing stream of scientific papers ultimately has to be withdrawn because of fabricated or manipulated data. (I almost hesitate to mention this category in view of the unrelenting attacks of anti-enlightenment forces of the idea that anything is factually true, but at least the phenomenon demonstrates the existence of a norm that asserts that there is a difference between true and false, like the difference between “there is a finite supply of oil” and “we can happily go on pumping forever.”)
One element of the problem that is particularly disturbing is the apparent willingness of professional observers to wink at almost everything.
Returning to the sports scene for a moment, there are ritual bows in the direction of Derek Jeter as the consummate sportsman, but a lot more time on ESPN is spent lavishing attention on cheaters: if you blink, you miss the transition between “they’re so naughty” and “they’re so great.”
Descending, finally, into the swamp that is political campaign coverage, it has often been remarked (to no avail) that it is virtually impossible to get some of the most fundamentally dishonest statements characterized by political reporters as lies. Thus, when Mitt Romney falsely trumpeted to the public last November the idea that President Obama believed that he (Obama) would lose a race that focused on the economy, a New York Times article was prepared to go as far as saying that Gov. Romney had “left out “ the “context,” but was not prepared to state as fact that the Romney statement was “deceitful” and “dishonest” (something the article framed as a charge made by “Mr. Obama’s allies”).
Romney had deliberately failed to mention that the statement he attributed to Obama (“If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose”) was a 2008 statement wherein then-Senator Obama was quoting Senator McCain. Yet the article devolved into an extended “he said, she said” piece, featuring the fact that the Romney campaign was not backing off, and ending with the idea that the gamesmanship of “competing messages” is really more important than truth: “as the Romney campaign wrote in the subject line of an e-mail to reporters Monday,” the article concludes, “’Game On.’”
It is difficult not to feel overwhelmed by the powerful forces that appear to provide limitless fuel to the impulse to cheat. Demos co-founder David Callahan, the author of The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead, runs a web site called “Cheating Culture.” The site features examples of cheating from dozens of areas of public life (deceptive advertising and insider trading are two). Callahan suggests that economic insecurity, lack of oversight of powerful sectors of society, and a highly individualistic culture that glorifies wealth, status, and personal gratification all contribute to what I’d call a cheating-friendly atmosphere.
Callahan, I think, identifies major elements of the problem. I would add another prominent feature of our culture: the way cleverness is worshipped, displacing a range of values — from truth, to wisdom, to fair play.
So where do we turn? The dilemma is that many calls to a return to “old values” are really nothing more than nostaglia for surface piety and stifling conformity. (The good old days of the 1950s, after all, encompassed the McCarthy period, and was a time when racism and sexism were still ascendant.)
I know only that the “values debate” desperately needs to be reclaimed by those who claim a progressive vision, and that each of us needs to become more unashamedly invested in the quest to live honorably, to do kindnesses, and to insist on the truth.